Colombian oil producers in the Llanos Basin pump far more water than oil. The percentage of water they produce is going to get ever-more dramatic in coming years, as the oil runs lower and what is called “water cut” gets higher. State oil company Ecopetrol, which has some of the biggest llanos oilfields, is now trying all sorts of ways to turn that water into something useful, such as irrigating forage for cattle and irrigating water-hungry lumber trees. They are improving treatment for the water they dump into rivers and they recently built their first injection well.
They are pumping the water into a wet landscape, and the aquifer they are pumping from is so full of water that in decades of oil production in the area, the water pressure has dropped about 1%, according to engineers who briefed me and another reporter in August (yes, took me a while to post this). So this is not one of those cases where the environmental impacts are obvious and horrifying.
Tarry wrack washes against the shore of Lake Maracaibo, the result of the constant oil spills into South America's second-largest lake. October 2009
Maracaibo’s maritime industry was nationalized a year ago. For workers, this was good news, as many provisional and part-time workers from private companies became full-time PDVSA employees, with a relatively good pay and benefits package. Unfortunately the result has been less favorable for the industry.
It used to be that when PDVSA, one of its joint ventures or a contractor needed, say, a crane, hauled out onto the lake to do a bit of maintenance work, they would call around to different barge companies, see who had time to do the job, and get the crane. Now, everyone calls the same number: PDVSA Servicios. PDVSA decides what job is most important and dispatches vessels based on the company’s own priority list. In theory this should be OK, as it’s in the company’s interest to conduct routine and preventative maintenance, to boost oil output, to rescue failing wells. But according to people who work at the lake, that’s not what happens.
Instead, they say, PDVSA hasn’t even maintained the vessels themselves. With a smaller fleet and a less contingent workforce, the company hasn’t got the boats or staff to do all the work that needs to be done. They prioritize emergencies above preventive maintenance, so it happens that companies send crews out to do maintenance work and then have to sit around waiting for hours or days for a piece of equipment to be hauled out onto the lake.
PDVSA vessel speeds past collapsing high-voltage tower on Lake Maracaibo, October 2009.
Updated 10:08 a.m. to make table readable.
Caracas’ water system made headlines in the fall when Alexander Hitcher, then president of the water utility Hidrocapital, went on television to say that he would impose mandatory water savings measures to reduce the flow to the city by 25%. The rainy season had added almost no water to local reservoirs and demand was growing. While the public whined about the nature of the rationing — 48 hours a week without water for most residents — I heard many people say that at least he was taking responsibility and doing something before the city ran out of water completely. I met plenty of people who at least said they agreed with my assessment that at 400 liters a day per capita, Caracas water consumption was unnecessarily high, and could easily be reduced.
Hitcher was promoted to minister of environment when Yubiri Ortega quit a few months ago, with the president saying that Hitcher had done a good job. He was back in public at the beginning of March to say that Caracas had successfully cut consumption by 30%. A week later, his vice minister of hydrology came out to say that people were using water more rationally, protecting the country’s reservoirs.
Meanwhile (to their credit) Hidrocapital continues to post periodic updates on the level of water in Caracas’s reservoirs. (March 1 presentation is here.) Looking at them breaks some of the tranquility one might feel after listening to the minister and his aides.
The biggest reservoir, Camatagua, declined at the exact same rate as it did in each of the prior four years up until the end of March. Since then, the rate of decline has slowed, but water level has continued to fall. Its current level is well under half of capacity. The reservoir has been exploited at an unsustainable rate since 2006. That was the last year when rains let the reservoir recover all of the water used in the prior dry season. Since then, each rainy season has failed to fill the reservoir, leaving the city with less and less margin for a very dry year like last year. There is now no margin for a multi-year drought — hopefully the nice people at Columbia University’s IRI are right to predict a heavy rainy season. Continue reading